The (not-homophobic side of the) sports world has invested a lot of magic in the currently-professional-and-playing-out-gay-male-athlete. It's no wonder, given how elusive that athlete has been.
Jason Collins comes out decades after Stonewall, he comes out long after Ellen DeGeneres came out while professionally-active-and-on-television and then recovered that career with her talk show, months after Frank Ocean came out about his love for a man. Johnny Weir was never not out. Orlando Cruz - a boxer - came out in October. Transgender athlete Renée Richards entered women's professional tennis in 1977: she had to sue for the right to do so. Hers is a landmark case. NBA, NFL and baseball players have come out before, but in retirement. In 2009, Gareth Thomas, one of the most famous rugby players in the world (captain of the Welsh team) came out while he was still in the game - he told first his coach and then his team. They embraced him. Thomas has been eloquent in his description of what being closeted as such a public figure means. In a recent interview for BBC, Thomas explained, "when you lie every day, you begin to hate yourself." It made him suicidal. Lists of athletes who have come out while they were playing date back quite a bit - take Billie Jean King, for example. Her 1981 outing was painful, not her choice and a powerful, frightening example - the story became a headline, a scandal and "in 24 hours" she lost all her endorsements. She went on to be an inspirational figure, a leader in the fight for a better game. The list goes on in all sorts of directions.
Even given the diversity of public figures who have come out over the years, Jason Collins is the first pro in one of the sports that anchors mass sports media in the US to come out while still on the roster. As an active player, his livelihood is dependent on a patriarchal, racist and homophobic machine. It is no surprise that it has taken so long for a man in this particular sports environment to identify himself as a member of that class of people mainstream sports culture defines itself against. Coming out is huge.
People have been chiming in with a list of other names. People want to remember the women who've been there before. In addition to those mentioned above: Martina Navratilova (who, like King, came out in 1981), Amelie Mauresmo, Sheryl Swoopes, Chamique Holdsclaw, Missy Giove, Natasha Kai, Megan Rapinoe, Vicky Gallindo, Liz Carmouche. There are a lot more gay women in sports, but the media doesn't quite know how to address them - or their fans. We can see this in how Brittney Griner's "coming out" is presented as a story about how her coming out is not a story.
Garance Franke-Ruta thus opens her article for The Atlantic with the following:
Female professional athletes are already gender non-conforming. Male ones are still worshipped as exemplars of traditional masculinity. Extremely sporty women have to fight stereotyping that they are lesbians and ignore all manner of unkind commentary about how they are mannish, while sporty men are seen as participating in a form of the masculine ideal.
This is given as the context for understanding why Brittney Griner's coming out isn't news. The rhetorical frame here accepts the "either-or," gender segregated structure of mainstream sports culture. It reinforces common sense about what matters, and how. Collins's coming out means more than Griner's. To whom?
My mind was properly blown by Griner's so-called coming out. Not because I thought Griner was straight. But because in that interview (for SI.com, because such interviews with women aren't conducted on, say, television) Griner was so damned smooth (her outfit!). It wasn't a "coming out" so much as an "always already been out." (This is also the style of Rapinoe's coming out).
SI Video host Maggie Gray: "Another big topic in sports recently is sexuality, especially with the NFL. In football it was rumored that maybe one or more players were going to come out--that would become huge news in the sports world and in general. In female sports, women's sports, in the WNBA, players have already come out, and it's really accepted. Why is there a difference between men and women in that issue?"
Brittney Griner: "I really couldn't give an answer on why that's so different. Being one that's out, it's just being who you are. Again, like I said, just be who you are. Don't worry about what other people are going to say, because they're always going to say something, but, if you're just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don't hide who you really are." Griner, Delle Donne, Diggins Discuss Sport and Sexuality on SI
It's a nice conversation. Gray opens the door and Griner walks right through it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Because in her world, it is.
But Gray opens this interview with a telling observation - an observation that allows us to see why Griner's coming out isn't a story: "It's not often we get to talk to three world class athletes that are also women." It isn't often, in other words, that we get to have this conversation (with women, between women) at all.
Lost in the story about it being "easier" for lesbians in women's sports is the larger apparatus that aggressively marginalizes women athletes. There's a relationship between the relegation of Griner's statement to a web-only platform and the making of Jason Collins's coming out narrative into a Sports Illustrated cover story. Griner's is a women's sports story - and women don't merit headlines, they aren't the lead story, they just don't mean as much - they aren't worth as much.
Minimized in language about how women athletes are always already gender non-conforming are the stories of butch women athletes who have been kicked off teams, harassed, assaulted - killed, even. Being an out gender non-conforming woman athlete is hard, and in some contexts it is dangerous. And that isn't much of a "story" either.
Mainstream sports culture devotes an enormous amount of energy to keeping things that way. Its commitment to maintaining the delusion that there are no gay men playing in the NBA is a part of the same problematic system that minimizes the whole of women's sports as less interesting, less valuable, less meaningful.
The ecstatic language that greets Collins as the magical figure that will transform sports culture has a weird shadow. Ecstatic: Finally, a man! Weird shadow: Because women can't have that magical effect on a patriarchal space from which they are banned.
Collins's coming out won't make the NBA into a queer space. But it does makes a little more room in the mainstream for gay and lesbian athletes. And that's no small thing.
But it's perhaps not quite as exciting - or as revolutionary - as what's happening in women's sports. Which isn't so mainstream. Which is why it is, and isn't news.